The Washington Post has a proud history of internal debate. Propose any kind of change to the 131-year-old institution, and watch the newsroom’s committees, task forces, and gossips chew on it. Every benefit and every conceivable pitfall must face the scrutiny of some of the best minds in the business.
Post history furnishes plenty of cases in point. Careful deliberation swallowed a proposal to install a Wall Street Journal–style news digest on the front page of the Post. It survived for a decade on meeting agendas. More than a few discursive conversations have addressed the timeless notion of consolidating the paper’s movie reviews, which are split between the Style and Weekend sections. And for how long has the newsroom been churning speculation on a merger of print and online operations?
Corporate strategy is the latest initiative to board the Post’s slow train. From its news desks to its leadership and digital operation, the newspaper is organized pretty much the same way it was when 28.8K baud modems ruled the world. In June, top executives visited Harvard Business School to begin contemplating the jargon and mentality of mission overhaul. The leadership conferred throughout the summer and fall with a committee of more than 30 Posties, with the goal of producing an agreed-upon strategy in October.
Way too ambitious: When the committee reviewed the plan, it balked, citing the need for more details, more marching orders. We’ll have a better plan by December, came the response.
If you buy that line, well, I’ll be happy to sell you some remnant space on my Web site. The Post isn’t going to rewrite an entire corporate strategic plan—not right in the middle of the holiday season.
While the paper’s top people fiddle with their strategy memo, the industry and the economy are tanking like never before. It would be best to have the new strategy in place before the Dow dips under 5,000.
So Washington City Paper, forever a friend to local media institutions, is hereby stepping in and taking charge. We’ve taken the time to interview key media strategists, examine the Post’s assets, and knit together a strategic plan for the ages. It’s all written up in corporatese, sans copyright, so the Post can just cut, paste, send to ALL, and gauge the reaction on FishBowlDC. It’s even in memo format, and it comes with “off the record” boxes that will help Post employees sort through the mumbo-jumbo.
Tip: Move your mouse over the highlighted text to reveal “off the record” boxes with explanatory notes.
FROM: Katharine Weymouth, Marcus Brauchli, Stephen Hills
RE: New Corporate Strategy
The Washington Post has reached a critical point in its evolution. For decades, the paper has achieved great things, both as a producer of journalism and as a business. When Len Downie recently retired as our executive editor, we celebrated the 25 Pulitzer Prizes that the paper won during his 17 years of leadership. For most of that time, the great journalism has come concurrently with the paper’s healthy bottom line. Generous profit margins, stable circulation, strong advertising sales—all of these were mainstays of the Washington Post Co.’s annual report for years.
That rosy picture, of course, has darkened. We will not belabor here the business climate that has buffeted the Post, as well as the entire newspaper industry—you are all too well aware of what has happened in recent years.
The Washington Post Co. has attempted to meet the challenging financial environment in a way that enables us to continue producing top-notch journalism. Though we have undergone three rounds of early-retirement offers this decade, the packages have been funded from our pension fund, not from the newsroom budget. We have taken other measures—including a companywide attempt to crack down on needless expenses—to protect our core reporting mission from the cyclical and secular trends in the information business.
Our collective efforts to date, however, will not properly position the Washington Post to take on the challenges of the 21st century. Our print and online operations still operate from separate offices; our downtown newsroom is still organized for the pre-digital world; and many of our journalistic products overlap with one another.
The stark reality for all of us is that the Washington Post has to change, as the following paper discusses.
The Big Picture
The Washington Post Co. is proud of the dialogue on corporate strategy that our employees have maintained in recent months. The discussion has been rich with innovative thinking and driven by a sincere desire to help the Washington Post—and, indeed, the entire news business—find a profitable model that accommodates our commitment to great journalism.
Along these lines, a few different schools of thought have emerged.
Focused Coverage: A lot of newsroom talk has centered on identifying the Washington Post’s core competencies, with the leading candidates being the federal government and the Washington metropolitan area. Under this model, the paper would concentrate staff around these two areas and would cut costs by reducing beats that lie outside of them, such as travel (outside of the region) and national coverage of topics such as books, entertainment, health, and the like.
Exclusive Coverage: A close cousin of the above approach, this strategy would evaluate everything the Post does from the standpoint of exclusivity. If the Post is providing information that can be accessed easily from other sources, we should consider dropping it from our offerings. Deborah Howell, our beloved ombudsman, delivered a vote for this approach in a recent column, writing that all such content is “fair game” for trimming.
New Corporate Structure: Various outside-of-the-box proposals would turn the news operation into a foundation with the mission of reporting the news and producing enterprise journalism or perhaps some kind of endowed trust with the same mission.
The leadership of the Washington Post Co. is wary of adopting any one of these three strategies, or any other attempt at reinventing the newspaper. Industry leaders have spent years trying to figure out this puzzle, with unimpressive results. Any attempt to revolutionize our business offers as much risk of discarding our assets as promise of saving the franchise.
Our strategy for the future could best be termed a nonstrategy. We will continue to cut expenses in the hope that we can squeak through these trying times. We will indeed reconfigure the Washington Post, though not in conformity with the latest management theory. Rather, we will make adjustments based on what we do well and what we don’t do well.